As any parent knows, kids are pretty gross. (Adorable, but gross.) If they’re not eating bugs, then they’re forgetting to wash their hands or playing with trash. And their playthings typically bear the brunt of this filth. That’s why we tapped Melissa Maker from the wildly popular Clean My Space for her top tips on how to disinfect toys and keep the playroom just a little less icky.
Cleaning Versus Disinfecting
There’s a difference between cleaning and disinfecting, Maker tells us. “If you’re cleaning a toy, you’re just wiping it down either with plain water or water and soap.” Maker’s preferred method for cleaning toys is to wet a microfiber cloth and simply wipe the item. This will remove a good amount of germs, dirt and other residue. Disinfecting, on the other hand, means using an EPA-registered disinfectant to kill germs. (More on that below.)
When to Clean Toys
Some experts recommend cleaning toys about once a month, but Maker says not to worry about sticking to a regular schedule. “Generally speaking, if your kids are healthy, I would say clean toys when they look dirty or when they feel gross,” she tells us. The reason being that a lot of the germs in your kids’ playroom are actually pretty harmless or even good for them by helping to build their immune systems. So don’t fret about the dog licking your child’s Paw Patrol van or a Lego-themed sippy cup falling onto the floor. “If they have friends over, you can be mindful about cleaning the toys afterward if you want to do that,” she adds.
When to Disinfect Toys
You’ll want to bring out the big guns when you suspect that bacteria or viruses may be present. Say, for example, your child has been sick or a bug is going around school. Here’s a pro tip: If your kids are sick, give them a handful of toys to play with while they’re not feeling well. “That way you don’t have to clean everything in the toy room, which would take you at least 45 minutes.” Instead, just have ten toys or so that you know your kids like and let them play with those while they’re ill.
But there’s no need to go crazy, says Maker. “Let’s say your kid had the flu a week ago—it’s not like you need to go and do a massive cleanup now, since that virus won’t survive that long.” (Per the CDC, the flu virus can live up to 48 hours on surfaces.) Disinfect anything that’s being actively touched or actively used, she advises.
If vomit or excrement is on a toy, then it’s a good idea to disinfect it. But because disinfection doesn’t remove any surface impurities, you should always clean before disinfecting.
How to Disinfect Toys
Plastic toys: Maker’s recipe for cleaning plastic toys is to use two cups of water to half a teaspoon of dish soap. “Soap and water is great at getting rid of bacteria—not everything, but it will get rid of a lot,” she says. If you don’t want to use dish soap, castile soap is another great option. To disinfect plastic toys, use an EPA-registered disinfectant. (Maker doesn’t love using vinegar, which she says may damage toys over time.) “I recommend spraying or wiping the disinfectant onto the toy and letting it sit on the surface for 3 to 5 minutes or however long the product suggests. Then wipe it off and give it a rinse, because the toy will probably end up going to go back in your kids’ mouths.” If washing by hand sounds like too much of a hassle, stick any plastic toys without batteries in the top rack of the dishwasher.
Wood toys: If the wood toy is varnished, then you should be OK using a disinfectant on it. Otherwise, gently wipe down the surface with a damp microfiber cloth to remove any dirt or grease.
Plush toys: Read the fabric’s cleaning label—some stuffed animals without batteries can be tossed into the washing machine and then the dryer. Otherwise, you can wipe it down with a damp cloth with either plain or soapy water. Less is more when it comes to soap since you don’t know how much you’ll end up leaving behind. “If the toy isn’t machine washable but you have a steam cleaner, you can use that to loosen the fibers and then use a cloth for a follow-up wipe.”
What About Bath Toys?
The biggest concern with bath toys is soap scum, so it’s important to let toys dry after use. Hang a mesh bag with suction cups and place the toys in there to dry. “If they do need a cleaning, either soaking in or wiping with vinegar is going to be really great in this situation because vinegar cuts soap scum,” says Maker. When it comes to squirt toys, they’re hard to clean properly, so once they start looking grimy, it’s best to just toss them out, she advises.